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Are you living your Purpose?

There’s a current resurgence of interest in the idea of Purpose, as it relates to business. Aaron Hurst with his book the Purpose Economy and company Imperative, and Jeremy Heimans over at seem to be hammering social media with the idea that purpose is not just good for people, but that it is also good for organisations and the way we run our businesses.

I am pretty unlikely to disagree with that. I also think purpose is important, for both people and organisations

Of course, purpose itself isn’t a particularly new idea in business. It has existed in the form of ‘Mission’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Values’ for a long time, and while people like Umair Haque have brilliantly lampooned these more traditional forms (in his book Betterness, for example) it continues to be something that comes up regularly with clients. “Help us clarify and communicate our purpose” they ask.

But the more of this work I do the more I realise that the really critical thing with Mission or Purpose, or whatever you want to call it, is ‘living it’.

Again this isn’t a particularly new idea – people have called this ‘walking the talk’ for as long as I can remember.

But I am not sure that particular injunction – ‘telling’ people to live it, to be it – really helps that much. I may want to “walk my talk”, but I still find it hard.

So here are some simple things you might choose to do that I believe will help you live your purpose.

Have a Purpose

First of all, it’s is good to have one, obviously.

But there’s a dilemma in that. I am going to focus in this post less on finding or discovering a purpose because I think there may be nothing to find. I don’t think purpose is a thing, and therefore we cannot find it like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Stafford Beer, the great cyberneticist, talked, I believe, in terms of POSIWID. “The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does”. This suggests that purpose is more ’emergent’. Like a rainbow it isn’t really there. But under certain special circumstances in combination with the way our eyes and brain work we can surely see it.

For example, my purpose today based on an observation of what I am doing, is to get out of bed and write a blog post.

I seem also to be in the throes of trying to raise a family, build a business, be a good citizen etc. Later I’ll make breakfast, go to meetings etc.

Notice that my purpose depends on a number of things, including the time of day, my role as viewer, as participant and so on.

The purpose gurus I listed above will, I am sure, provide useful methods to ‘capture ‘ your purpose as if it is a thing to be captured. There are audio books and books galore (contradicting myself, I have to say I rather liked Richard Jacobs’ attempt), and generally consultants and coaches love to do this kind of work.

And if you really want to clarify your purpose then I can recommend nothing better than a week-long silent retreat in the mountains of Wales or some other beautiful and remote place.

Maybe it is just me, but I think the assumption behind many of these ‘processes’ is that purpose will emerge as something tangible, words that you can, for example, engrave on a tablet of stone. A ‘calling’ that you can take along with you for the rest of your life, to steer you, to drive you?

But maybe purpose as a thing is hard to ‘capture’? Maybe it is too temporary, too contingent on circumstances for that?

Simply Noticing

So instead of a long search, or following a complex process, I suggest simply noticing. Being aware. Not just of our thoughts, but also of our feelings and our instincts. Noticing what you do and how you do it. Noticing is a conscious business practice and one we can do at any time.  It is especially best done, while we are acting – we sometimes call this reflexivity.

If you spend a little time on that then you’ll probably quickly notice that purpose changes. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and even second to second.

If I am eating lunch with a friend my purpose is probably something to do with enjoying the food and conversation. Or maybe I am trying to get something across, or share something, or get some support.

At a business meeting an hour later, my purpose might be completely different. I may be trying to build a very different kind of relationship.

Yes, I may be able to see a pattern in my purpose. I seem to want to build a business day after day after day. My need to feed and clothe and educate my children does not go away.

Seeing purpose as changing makes me want to explore it all the more. I can learn more about my purpose by enquiring into it, enquiring into all these facets, discovering what it means, and what I am about.

Am I Living My Purpose?

But when I do that, and I guess it is the same for many people, I notice that there are also plenty of times when I don’t seem to be following my purpose. I find myself distracted. Or I find myself doing something completely at odds with what I think I want to achieve.

This happens most often in groups and teams. For example, my purpose, as I might name it when entering into a meeting is to be unconditionally constructive, collaborative, and help people, including me, find the best solutions to whatever issues they face.

But what happens? Sometimes, almost the opposite. I might notice myself behaving destructively. Perhaps causing as many problems as I solve.

Again noticing, I believe, is the key to unpicking this. By observing what I am doing, I can ascertain a new facet to my purpose, something I may have been previously unaware of.

Maybe I am more competitive than I thought and I am engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Maybe I have learned some habitual ways to get my need to feel outraged met, and I am exercising this by blaming other people and their failings.

Again, simply noticing will probably give me all the clues I need.

Beyond noticing – community and conflict

So noticing is great. But for me, noticing also isn’t enough. When I become more aware of what is going on it helps, but it doesn’t necessarily help me break out of the habits I have formed.

This is one reason why I like the Do Something Different system – because I believe it can help us break those habits – of mind and body – which keep us in our comfort zone.

And the other thing that I believe is completely necessary if I want to live my purpose is trust, and conflict. Echoing Patrick Lencioni, we have found again and again that a group of people won’t enter into conflict unless there are high levels of trust amongst the group.

A healthy form of conflict is necessary for someone to do me the huge favour of pointing out my failings. If you are going to point out to me that I am not living my purpose, and, believe me I do want you to do that, you risk me fighting back.

We risk conflict every time we point out to someone the difference between their espoused position (what they say they will do) and what we actually observe.

But being open to this feedback and being in a group of people brave enough and caring enough to give accurate feedback is, I think, really the answer to living my purpose. Few of us are saints – few of us have the awareness to always notice when we stop living our purpose. And even fewer, myself included, have the willpower to do much about it.

We need other people, we need a community around us that will give us that ultimate gift of clean, unencumbered feedback.

Being personally open to that feedback isn’t easy, of course, but the skills and conditions that allow trust and healthy conflict to arise in a group are fairly easy to learn and practise. There are better ways to converse than those we learned in the playground or in our first families.

As a group, we can learn to break collusion, and see reality.

I’d love to hear what you think? Does this make sense? Is your purpose more easily fixed than the way I describe it? Are my assumptions correct, or way off base?

What is your purpose?
And are you living it?


Aaron Hurst – Purpose Economy book company Imperative

Jeremy Heimans

Betterness by Umair Haque

Richard Jacobs – Find your Purpose

Patrick Lencioni

Do Something Different

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Conscious Leadership: The Challenges of Empowerment

Laziness is my primary motivator when empowering others. If a thing is worth doing, I believe it’s worth getting someone else to do it.

This, however, is not as self indulgent as it might seem. I know that as a leader one of the first things I need to learn is to let go and trust others to get on with it.

I have not always been very good at this. However, over the years I have learnt why my old, more controlling ‘I’ll do it for you’ ways don’t really work and why empowering others is essential.

First off, lets look at confidence. My mother’s “Let me do that for you darling” – while I’m performing some simple task like making a cup of tea – is probably meant as an act of kindness. How I actually feel it is: “I am an idiot that can’t be trusted to make tea, despite the years of apparent evidence to the contrary.”

This not only irritates me but it also kicks my confidence, as it’s a tacit implication that I’m incompetent. There’s a subtlety to it though because cognitively I know I’m not, however I still irrationally feel it at some level and feelings tend to beat thoughts.

Learning is another key benefit of empowerment. In today’s fast moving, customer-centric world it is essential that everybody learns, and learns fast. Best of all is when they are so confident and engaged they take responsibility and drive their own learning.

When it comes to learning new things Mum is very much of the school of “probably shouldn’t try as it’s likely to be too difficult”. For me this is less than ideal. When I’m learning, what I really want is lots of encouragement and belief, as this helps me push through the self doubt.

Challenge is also very important to us. Solving something like a crossword puzzle or winning a video game is all the evidence we really need for this. Overcoming challenges helps us grow our self belief (or confidence) and it usually gives us a little frisson of excitement, and a sense of deeper resilience.

So why is empowerment so important? In my quest for a work free life, it is fairly obvious that once I let someone do something little – like a task I have handed them – then I  can give them more and more responsibility – until ultimately they are acting more like a leader themselves.

Effective leaders actively offer responsibility by distributing leadership power among the people that need it, allowing leadership to occur where it is needed most, often in the front line of business.  Most importantly this helps get a lot more done. It’s also likely to help teams be happier, more engaged and show more initiative.

It’s also probably helpful to think of leadership more as how you enable others to do what they need to do and then get the hell out of the way.

Although this is obvious in theory it can be quite hard to get right in practice. If you’re a control freak, for example, not only are you likely to be killing off your team’s motivation and innovation but you are likely to need more than a little help overcoming this urge.

A good and challenging place to start is delegation, and to get good at that. The more you are able to do this the more you are getting closer to allowing others around you to lead.

Inexperienced or untrained managers are most at risk of sabotaging themselves and their attempts to delegate.

The problem is, even if you are a ninja level engineer with technical insight gifted seemingly from the gods, management requires a totally and utterly different skill set and will exercise very different personality traits and emotional muscles, including some you might not have developed yet.

Many organisations miss this obvious fact and expect people to just figure it out, without proper investment in management training or personal development.

Not knowing how to be effective as a manager (common in those newly promoted to management) and without any help from those around them, before long the freshly challenged become frustrated and revert to what they do know – in this case “engineering”. They then start interfering with the “engineering” people in their teams are trying to do – showing them how they are doing it wrong and how the new boss can do it better.

As I said above, the thing most likely to undermine my confidence, motivation and general goodwill is poorly veiled criticism over my shoulder. Every “suggestion”, implies that I’m doing something wrong and thus can’t be trusted to perform the simple thing in front of me. And so I disengage.

Psychologically, I’m in a “double bind”: I’m feeling things are wrong even though I can see my way is working or valid. So I stop trying – because I’m wrong either way. I’ll go and look at what my friends on Facebook are doing instead.

Challenge is also removed – if my manager does take over and do my work for me. I lose the opportunity to learn. And, of course, I now believe he thinks I’m an idiot, so trust between us is destroyed.

It is worst of all when this exists at the top of hierarchies. Perhaps we are genetically predisposed to look up the hierarchy for tips on how to behave. So if someone senior is guilty of micromanagement, this crime can infuse the organisation below them like an unwanted inheritance.

An antidote follows. Let’s imagine the team player we’re delegating to is called Bob and he reports to me. Here is a way to set up delegation, broadly in line with the approach espoused by the late Stephen Covey. This is a mechanism that should catch any possible derailment and put the task back on track.

Bigger picture: I help Bob understand where he and what he’s doing fits into the bigger picture. What the organisation he is part of is trying to achieve. This taps into Bob’s sense of purpose and connects the task he’s achieving with that broader purpose. The context also helps him understand the implications if he does not get it done.

Ownership: I give Bob total ownership of the task. It’s up to him to get it done. This is so he is clear that no one else is responsible for achieving the desired outcome. No one is going to pick up his toys or tie his shoelaces for him. The buck stops with him. Essentially this is an invitation for him to “step up to the plate” of responsibility.

Expectations and Results: I also make sure Bob is very clear about what kind of results are expected. This will be helped if Bob already understands the bigger picture. It’s even better to ask Bob to consider the position of the other stakeholders and figure out what a good outcome for all might be.

For example, Bob might decide he needs to finish the project on time with a high quality, technically robust solution, and on, or under, budget.

Booby Traps: If there are some big obvious pitfalls in front of Bob then it’s only fair to warn him of these in advance so he can try to avoid them.

Support: If Bob is experiencing any problems, is unclear or struggling with the task, or if the delivery of the project is in jeopardy, I make it clear I am available to support to him to get through it, or to re-agree expectations. But I definitely am not going to do it for him.

Mistakes: Bob will undoubtedly make plenty of mistakes, we all do. This will help him learn and become more resourceful and do his job better, especially if all “mistakes” as are treated as learning opportunities. Not with punishment or disapproval, but with encouragement and support.

Feedback: Feedback should be a gift not a weapon. If given as a gift your teams will grow, develop and make you look good. If used as a weapon then your groups will regress, be generally unhappy and perform badly – they will be fearful of taking risks or “getting it wrong”. This kills innovation, creativity and energy.

Finally, having set all this up, you now need to live by the rules you’ve created. Again this is  basically because “monkey see, monkey do”. Other people will do as you do, not as you say. Any ambiguity also creates “wriggle room” – space to allow people to wriggle out of their responsibility. However, if you are consistently well boundaried and do what you’ve said you will do, the opportunity for others to wriggle will be minimised.

Good luck!